In the world of Star Wars publishing, there’s one name that towers above the rest: Timothy Zahn. Though a number of Star Wars novels had been published prior to Zahn’s involvement in George Lucas’ space opera, it was the runaway popularity of his Heir to the Empire in 1991, the first of three #1 New York Times bestselling books commonly referred to as the Thrawn Trilogy, that set off a flurry of novels set in that galaxy far, far away.
What made Heir to the Empire so unique was that it was the first story that had ever been told set after Return of the Jedi — five years after the events of that movie, if you want to be specific. But though the prospect of a new adventure with Luke, Han, and Leia was the initial hook, Zahn entranced readers with the vivid new charaters of his own creation like the master strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Imperial assassin turned Mrs. Luke Skywalker known as Mara Jade. He’s written plenty of books since, novels which usually pivot around ideas first presented in the “Thrawn Trilogy” like the prequel-set Outbound Flight and the Original Trilogy-set Rebels vs. Imperials yarns Allegiance and Choices of One. His latest is Scoundrels, a heist novel starring Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca, due Jan. 1.
We talked to Zahn about his creative process, why we keep coming back to Luke, Han, and Leia, and what he hopes to see from the new Star Wars trilogy. Plus, throughout the interview we have exclusive concept art of Scoundrels’ characters, along with a select quote from each of them that’s found in the book.
Hollywood.com: How did you come up with the concept for Scoundrels?
Timothy Zahn: Well, you’ve got a bunch of scoundrels in the Star Wars universe. I’ve always enjoyed Ocean’s 11 and The Sting. That kind of heist or con game where you don’t have to worry about the participants stabbing each other in the back afterward. A nice frothy entertainment. And it just seemed like a natural for Han and Chewie and Lando and their crowd of like-minded people.
HW: It’s a departure for you as well, because it feels more like a one-off, standalone adventure. It doesn’t feature some of the characters that recur in your work like Thrawn or Mara Jade.
TZ: Actually, that was part of the goal with this. Shelly Shapiro, the Del Rey editor, and Sue Rostoni, who was handling these things for Lucas Licensing at the time, were looking for a story that could appeal to Star Wars fans who weren’t necessarily Star Wars readers. There are 150+ Star Wars novels out there and for someone who isn’t already familiar with them the whole thing can look a little intimidating. So my goal was to do a story that could draw in fans who don’t know anything about the Expanded Universe. What kind of story could do that? That story is Scoundrels. If you’ve seen the Original Trilogy, you’re good to go.
HW: I’ve read dozens of Star Wars novels, but even I feel a bit daunted at times by the sheer amount of material out there. Do you think the literal expansiveness of the Expanded Universe can be a barrier to new readers?
TZ: Whenever you have anything that’s too huge, it’s like “Where do I start? Where do I jump in to this?” I have friends who say, “These books are wonderful, but how do we start? Chronologically, with the Old Republic? Or in the order they were written, with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and the old Han Solo/Lando Calrissian books? Do I start with the Thrawn Trilogy, with Legacy of the Force? What do I need to know to get into this and not completely lose my way? There is an intimidation factor now. It’s just too huge. And that’s a shame because there are a lot of really good books out there in the Expanded Universe, but if you look at it like climbing Mt. Everest it’s hard to get into them.
HW: You haven’t written a Star Wars novel set any further than 15 years after Return of the Jedi. Have you decided that you always want to stay relatively close to the events of the Original Trilogy?
TZ: It’s partly that, but it was also that starting with The New Jedi Order they started doing long, long series—New Jedi Order alone is a 19 book series—and they had to have a whole bunch of authors to coordinate and work together on these things. I am not all that interested in that kind of collaboration, partly because I always come up with new ideas midway while writing a book, and if I’m book three of nine, I can’t incorporate those new ideas without screwing up everything down the line. So I think it would be frustrating for me to think that I had a great idea but have to stay within the confines of the outline. I’ve played around instead in my own little corner of the Star Wars universe, which, aside from Outbound Flight is A New Hope plus 19 years or so.
HW: You basically invented the juggernaut that is Star Wars publishing with the Thrawn Trilogy. Now that we’re 20 years after the publication of Heir to the Empire, how has your experience of writing in the Star Wars universe changed?
TZ: The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a lot more complicated. There are so many more books and writers working. When I wrote Heir to the Empire, set five years after Return of the Jedi, I had essentially a blank canvas to work with. Obviously I had Lucasfilm making sure I didn’t do anything completely off the wall, but there was never a worry about running into some other author’s storyline or finding out that you’ve accidentally placed a major character in two different places in the Galaxy at the same time. It’s much harder to keep track of what you’re doing, except that thankfully we have Wookieepedia and the Lucasfilm Holocron. But you will probably step into something that somebody else created unless you’re very, very careful.